By Josh Hamilton, Senior Manager of Racing Communications, NASCAR
Imagine standing in the middle of a road with 40 cars roaring right at you at 55 miles per hour.
Now add the responsibility of identifying a specific car, following its path towards you as it screeches to a halt a mere few feet away, and monitoring for more than a dozen potential rule infractions, all while a world-class pit crew changes four tires and adds 18 gallons of fuel to the car in under 13 seconds.
How can you ensure that even the best-trained officials make the right call every time?
This was the quandary NASCAR officials found themselves in as they were reviewing ways to improve.
We are always looking to incorporate more technology into the sport,” said NASCAR Executive Vice President and Chief Racing Development Officer Steve O’Donnell. “When we were looking at pit road, we wanted to identify a solution that could improve the accuracy of our officiating while creating a safer environment for drivers, crew members, and officials.”
NASCAR turned to U.K.-based Hawkeye Solutions, the group behind the instant replay technology used in professional tennis. The two collaborated to build an automated system to monitor all cars on pit road, allowing for the removal of officials from potential harm’s way.
The pit road technology, first used in 2015, uses 45 HD cameras and a mind-blowing 9,630 Gflops of processing power across 30 servers, nine million times more than the last space shuttle launch.
The cameras are spread out above the grandstands and pointed towards pit road. Each camera points at two pit boxes, with each box seen by two different cameras, creating a natural overlap along the length of pit road. A complex network of fiber-optic cables sends the data from each camera to the Pit Road Officiating (PRO) Trailer located on-site in the NASCAR Technology Center.
“As soon as a car enters pit road, the first camera identifies it through its unique transponder code and sends the data to the PRO Trailer,” O’Donnell said. “The car is ‘passed down’ the line from camera to camera until it reaches its assigned pit box. That’s when the system really goes to work.”
The infractions that were previously called by the officials are now called directly by the computer.
Through a detailed pre-race laser mapping of pit road, the system knows the exact dimensions of the pit boxes and vehicles. Based on the real-time video provided by the cameras, it is capable of identifying infractions of rules that govern things from how many pit boxes a driver is allowed to drive through, to the timing of when a crew member can first jump over the pit wall.
“Unlike other sports’ instant replay systems, our pit road technology actually makes the call if an infraction occurred or not and alerts us,” O’Donnell said. “Our officials then verify each call before a penalty is assessed.”
“We like maintaining the human element because every circumstance is different, and we always want to err on the side of caution. If a driver drives through too many pit boxes, but it’s done to avoid contact with a car or crew member, we’re going to overrule the computer and not issue a penalty.”
In addition to the accuracy and safety benefits, the automation also has strengthened NASCAR’s integrity with fans and competitors. After each pit stop, the video is clipped and immediately available to NASCAR officials, crew chiefs, and the race broadcaster.
“In the past, we would have to wait until after the race to review pit road replays with teams and media and explain our decisions,” O’Donnell said. “With the automated system, teams and fans watching on TV have instant access to the videos. It’s easy to quash any complaints when you can just point to the video.”
With automated officiating well underway, one might look to autonomous vehicles as the next evolution of NASCAR. “Our drivers are our superstars,” O’Donnell said. “We have 40 world-class athletes — the best drivers in the world — racing side-by-side at speeds up to 200 mph, week-in and week-out. NASCAR was founded on the principle of the best driver out-running his or her fellow competitors, and that’s not something that is ever going to change.” ■